Ukraine's Constitutional Court yesterday overturned a new amendment to the country's election laws that had been intended to minimize the chances for fraud, but it dismissed other...

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MOSCOW — Ukraine’s Constitutional Court yesterday overturned a new amendment to the country’s election laws that had been intended to minimize the chances for fraud, but it dismissed other legal challenges and cleared the way for a second presidential runoff today. The court ruled that a new limit on the number of Ukrainians who could vote at home — a major demand of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, 50, following the disputed runoff on Nov. 21 — violated the constitutional rights of ill or disabled voters who would not otherwise be able to cast ballots.

That law, adopted by parliament this month as part of a compromise to end the divisive electoral dispute, was among several challenged this week by legislators loyal to Yushchenko’s opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, 54. The court rejected the other appeals, however, including one against new limits on absentee voting, which Yushchenko and international election observers cited as a means for fraud during the November election.

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Representatives of both candidates, as well as election observers, would accompany ballot boxes taken to homes. More than 10,000 observers are in Ukraine to monitor the vote.

Viktor Yushchenko wants closer ties with EU.

Nestor Shufrych, a lawmaker and Yanukovych ally, said the court’s ruling would affect about 3 million people, but that number could not be independently confirmed. He said Ukrainians who qualify had until 8 p.m. yesterday to notify their local election precinct that they wanted to vote at home.

However, it appeared unlikely that the cash-strapped Ukrainian government would be able to quickly solve the logistical problems — and that could become a basis for legal challenges to the election results.

Viktor Yanukovych is favored by ethnic Russians.

“A large group of Ukrainians was deprived of the right to vote,” said Valery Konovalyuk, a pro-Yanukovych member of parliament and lawyer who argued the appeals before the Constitutional Court.

Ukraine’s voters appeared deeply divided, with the industrialized east, which is largely ethnic Russian, favoring Yanukovych, who wants to weld the former Soviet republic even closer to Russia, and the more rural west backing Yushchenko, who supports closer ties to Western Europe and the United States.

Still, Yushchenko is expected to win, reversing a 870,000-vote Yanukovych victory last month that was declared invalid by the Supreme Court on the basis of fraud.

His spokeswoman, Irina Gerashchenko, said yesterday that Yushchenko’s standing in polls leading up to the new vote now showed “an indecent difference” between him and Yanukovych.

Yanukovych has been competing hard. Stung by charges that he’s a clumsy public speaker, the prime minister demanded a showdown “any time, in any forum” with Yushchenko.

Yanukovych seemed to hold his own Monday in a heated TV debate with his poised and polished challenger. At one point, Yanukovych retorted, “Ah, now we see your true face,” a bitter remark, although he did not seem to be making a reference to Yushchenko’s heavily pockmarked face.

Yushchenko broke out in cysts and lesions after he was poisoned by eating or drinking something contaminated with dioxin, the highly toxic component of Agent Orange. He fell ill in September and spent three weeks at a private clinic in Vienna, Austria. He has since returned to the clinic twice for treatment and further tests.

It remains unclear who poisoned him, or when. Pro-government business tycoons, criminal syndicates and the security services of Ukraine and Russia all have come under suspicion.

Yushchenko now seems as fit and feisty as ever, and he continues to put in 14-hour days on his campaign.

The campaign has been relatively peaceful, although a Yushchenko campaign convoy was prevented from entering the eastern city of Donetsk last week, when a crowd of blue-clad Yanukovych backers blocked the highway.

However, Yanukovych warned last week he has no control over the “indignation” of his backers.

But in Donetsk, his supporters appeared resigned to the prospect of a Yushchenko victory.

“We are still working, just as we were. What do we need? A job, a salary on time, peace. That’s it,” said Leonid, a city miner. “They need power. They want it. They want only power.”

“We’re certainly expecting violent actions,” said Mykola Katerynchuk, a senior aide to Yushchenko. “We have reports that the other side is preparing groups of young men dressed in [our] orange colors to cause problems.”

Material from Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Associated Press is included in this report.